There’s always an element of unknowability about an inaugural international track, even when that track is laid at a venue that’s prolific and well-loved for its national tracks. But today, designer Captain Mark Phillips and organiser Nigel Taylor debuted a CCI4*-S course at Aston le Walls that not only did the job it needed to do – that is, replacing the cancelled Chatsworth fixture and providing a suitable challenge for this stage of the year — it also proved, we hope, that the venue is a viable location for a recurring fixture of this level.
It wasn’t just the course that made this iteration of Aston seem rather shiny and new, though certainly the tough but fair questions and the enormous effort put in to add an extra 800 or so meters to the existing usable area gave it a premium feel. It was also the ground: superbly prepared and springy (and, as a fellow journalist pointed out, quite impeccably mown into perfect stripes), the dressing up of the place, and the palpable buzz, despite a closed-door policy that meant only owners, trainers, media, and, of course, selectors could attend the competition.
Mind you, the presence of those selectors may well have played one of the largest roles in giving the event, which showcased over 200 competitors, a true international atmosphere. Though Aston has had plenty to offer four-star competitors of every experience level and calibre over the past three days, it’s also been notable for providing a suitable stage for those fighting for a coveted berth on the Tokyo Olympic squad to show off why they should be selected. And it wasn’t just Great Britain’s chaps in charge, Dickie Waygood and Chris Bartle and their bevy of selectors, including Nigel Taylor himself, who took advantage of the chance – Ireland’s Sally Corscadden and her compatriots, as well as representatives of the Japanese Racing Association, also made the journey to Northamptonshire to flesh out their plan of action for the summer ahead.
Though both sections, each chock-full of 100+ competitors, were fiercely competitive, it was Section A that boasted an embarrassment of riches where potential British Olympians are concerned – and it was Laura Collett and London 52 who once again proved that the horse’s extraordinary career trajectory, almost freakish innate ability, and meticulous production have worked in tandem to create one of the most formidable horses on the scene.
“He’s just unreal; it’s like he already knows the course. I just sit back and enjoy the ride,” says Laura. “He’s got better and better since [winning at Pau on his five-star debut in 2020] — he hasn’t run in six weeks, but he was so focused and it was just lovely. He’s just an amazing horse; he gives me goosebumps in every phase.”
The goosebumps are regularly shared among those lucky enough to watch his extravagant, elegant tests, and their 20.5 here was followed up a foot-perfect clear around the showjumping course on grass.
“You feel like you could jump the moon on him,” enthuses Laura. And if there was ever cause for concern about his cross-country performance — and there was some, back in 2019 when he was finding his feet at the upper levels — it’s well behind him now.
“Now he’s like, ‘come on mum, let’s go!’,” she laughs. “Which is great. He’s more than the horse I thought he was; he’s just unbelievable.”
London 52’s now-established ability to hunt out the flags paid dividends around what proved to be an exciting and challenging track.
“It was intense [in sections] — the arena to the mound to the trakehner to the water came up like bang, bang, bang,” Laura explains. “It came up really quickly. But it was good — everything was built on a really positive distance, and it made you get out there and commit. [London 52] has got such a huge stride and such a go button that I was having to say ‘woah’ everywhere — he was like, ‘there’s the next one — let’s go!’ and I had to say, ‘not so fast!’ But he just makes it feel ridiculously easy — he’s so on his lines and just really listening now.”
Coming forward in Section A provided its own unique set of pressures – not just from the knowledge of the selectors watching closely, but because Laura was intensely aware that the riders chasing her along the leaderboard weren’t likely to make any mistakes in their hunt for her spot. But if there’s one thing she’s learned while dealing with the ups and downs of producing a superstar in the spotlight, it’s to simply focus on her job and enjoy the ride.
“It felt like a mini-Olympics out there in that section — there are so many top-class horses and riders, and you just know that they’re not going to make any mistakes behind you. I’m just lucky that I felt like I could go out and enjoy him; he’s so special.”
Second place went to Izzy Taylor and Monkeying Around, the 2017 Six-Year-old World Champion who, like London 52, has had the rather dubious privilege of gaining all his experience at the upper levels in the public eye. But he’s been on the up and up since the resumption of the sport last summer, and in adding just 0.4 time penalties to his 22.5 dressage, proved that he’s well and truly got the hang of the game these days.
There’s no such thing as a sure thing where Olympic selection is concerned — particularly when looking at the candidates for the British team, which could be filled several times over with viable options. But consistency will count more than ever this year with the new Olympic format, which will see just three combinations on each team – and 2019 Pau CCI5* victors Tom McEwen and Toledo de Kerser are just about as consistent and reliable as it gets. They finished easily on their dressage score of 23 to take third place – perhaps too easily, as Tom explains: “It was all very smooth, and he just built his rhythm as he went around. The rhythm and the lines [of the course] really suited him – but it’s the difference between having an experienced five-star horse like him who finds this level comfortable now, and some of the really nice four-star horses that I’ve got that are still gaining experience. [The result] is what you’d expect — but through the years, even through Young Riders and everything, I’ve always been quite good at cocking it up at Aston le Walls, so I’m glad I didn’t do that today!”
Though Toledo had one job today — that is, to stretch his legs and remind the selectors of just how classy he is — Tom’s other rides were here to learn a thing or two, which they did in various fashions. Bob Chaplin finished 24th with a sub-30 score, a rail down, and a steady clear round, while Dreamaway II earned Tom his best-ever international score, a 21.8, jumped clear in the showjumping, and picked up an unfortunate glance-off at the influential angled skinny at 22. Nevertheless, he finished with just 6 time penalties, heralding a promise of exciting things to come from the leggy grey.
“The rest of the round, he was absolutely class — he’s a bit of a different ride to Toledo. He’s got a big old stride, but he likes to be ridden on a more free contact; in hindsight, I might have ridden that combination a little bit differently. It’s all about finding the time, and the place, and the rhythm — and anyway, as Andrew Nicholson said in Horse&Hound, sometimes you need these things. If everything’s perfect, you start thinking everything’s perfect [and get complacent].”
Piggy March popped a Brookfield mount into each of the competition’s top tens, and in Section A it was the turn of Brookfield Inocent, the likely frontrunner for her own Tokyo campaign who so gamely finished second in his five-star debut at Pau last year. Though his 25.8 dressage score here was higher than he’s capable of earning, he marched his way back up the leaderboard when he added nothing to it – and his game-faced maturity demonstrated that, despite an unfortunate glance-off at an influential corner in last month’s Burnham Market four-star, he’s all class under pressure.
Rounding out the top five was Sarah Bullimore and her remarkable little spitfire Corouet, who finished on his dressage score of 27.4 to battle his way back up the leaderboard. This was some consolation to Sarah, who bred the preternaturally talented gelding out of her former five-star mount Lily Corrinne, as their first-phase performance had been impacted by the presence of a dramatically protesting horse just outside the arena. Though he’s lacking in some experience in comparison to many of his compatriots in the top five, with just a handful of four-stars under his belt so far, he’s being produced with future team appearances in mind — and though he won’t have the match practice for a Tokyo selection, he could be an exciting candidate for the reinstated European Championships later on in the year.
While London 52 is a familiar name to even the most casual of eventing fans, World Champion Ros Canter‘s Section B victor will be a new face to all except the very keenest of viewers. Though this section was slightly less jam-packed with Tokyo candidates, it still proved hugely competitive through the day – but nine-year-old Lordships Graffalo, owned by Michele Saul, made light work of just his third outing at this level to land the win, finishing on his exceptional 21.8 dressage.
“He’s a real cool customer — he loved it out there,” says Ros of the gelding, a maternal sibling of stablemate Pencos Crown Jewel. “It’s probably the first time I’ve really pushed him along, speed-wise, and I was really impressed about how fast he is. He had loads of acceleration, which is very exciting. He’s a lovely horse to ride cross-country, because he can accelerate away from a fence and then come back easily, and so the time felt relatively easy in that sense because even in the fiddly bit of the course, I could push on a bit and then come back for the fences.”
Even more exciting for Ros is the fact that she’s had the ride on ‘Walter’ from the very beginning; he was sent to her by his breeder to break in and sell, and fortunately, that sale wouldn’t see him go far. She’d been asked by owner Michele to find a smart young horse, and Ros knew that the one she had on her yard already was as nice a type as any she’d find elsewhere. And so she produced him until the 2019 season, when she handed the reins to Tom McEwen while she took her maternity leave. Tom rode the horse at two- and three-star level, took the horse to the seven-year-old World Championships at Le Lion d’Angers, and the adaptable, affable gelding switched easily between his two riders.
“He’s been a consistent performer throughout his career so far and we’re really excited about him,” says Ros, and it’s easy to see why: in his nine FEI runs, he’s never finished lower than eleventh.
Ros also enjoyed great rounds with both her ‘old boys’ — World Champion Allstar B finished 14th in Section A after a pole at the first fence proved expensive, while Zenshera wound up 26th in the same section after a test that Ros described as his best ever, a similarly expensive rail, and a relatively steady run across the country.
“At that level, we take a pole quite happily,” laughs Ros of Zenshera, who has been exceptionally consistent at five-star. “We’re not renowned for our showjumping!”
Piggy March led this section after showjumping with Brookfield Quality, a horse known fondly as ‘Nervous Norris’ for his endearing quirks and occasional insecurities. He finished second, dropping down from his two-phase lead after adding just 1.6 time penalties — a big price to pay, perhaps, for such a tiny amount of penalties, but one that’s indicative of just how closely fought these sections were. Nevertheless, it’s another exciting result for the gelding, who has already won six of his sixteen FEI runs and was unbeaten at internationals in 2019.
Not even a month has passed since we saw Kitty King‘s 2018 Six-Year-Old World Champion take the win in one of Burnham Market’s CCI4*-S sections, and he’s already proven himself yet again, finishing third after coming home just two seconds over the 6:21 optimum time to add 0.8 to his dressage score of 23.7.
“He’s so good — he goes in a snaffle, he goes in a cavesson, and basically, if you can kick hard enough, he keeps going,” says Kitty with a laugh. “He’s so nice and easy to ride, because he just doesn’t pull.”
The progression of Cristal Fontaine’s four-star education has suited him brilliantly, giving him a fighting chance around today’s track, which Kitty described as continental in feel: built on positive strides, utilising man-made mounds, and interspersing twisty sections with open, galloping areas. That gave her the chance to feel out his capacity to adapt to changes of plan on course, particularly in questions utilising logs atop mounds, which the naturally cautious jumper would be prone to landing short from.
“Burnham last year was pretty basic, so it was a really good introduction. Then this spring it was really nice with two tough sections, which was great for his education, and now here, it’s just that bit more intense than Burnham Market. He had to keep coming up with the answers here, whereas there it was a bit like, ‘that was difficult, but now you can have a nice gallop for a bit and get settled.’ It’s been a good education for him and he’s done it really well.”
Kitty was frustrated not to feature near the top of the leaderboard with her other ride, the Tokyo contender Vendredi Biats, who pulled a shoe while on course and accrued 3.6 time penalties as a result, dropping them down to 13th place.
“It was really annoying, as I had to go steady around the turns. [Cristal Fontaine] is quite adept at pulling shoes and he tends to keep on motoring along, whereas [Vendredi Biats] never does, and he likes to motorbike around the corners anyway, so without it I thought ‘let’s not fall over!’ It’s a shame, as he’s got the time plenty of times at four-star, so he’d have been fine if I hadn’t had to be cautious.”
Gemma Tattersall produced a committed, positive round aboard the former Karin Donckers ride Jalapeno III, who made her first FEI appearance since Pau in 2019 this week. Though they certainly gave it a good go, they didn’t quite make the time, instead adding 2.4 time penalties to their very good first-phase score of 23.6.
Former Junior European Champion and Reserve Young Rider European Champion Bubby Upton has made an impressive show of her step up to Senior status over the last couple of seasons, and her performances here have certainly commanded attention: she finished fifth in this section aboard the smart-jumping Cannavaro, while Young Rider mount Cola III finished seventh in Section A. Even more commendably, both horses finished on their respectable sub-30 dressage scores, strengthening what are likely to be dual campaigns for the recent university graduate this year: to tackle a debut five-star and, perhaps, to fight for a spot at the European Championships and become one of the tiny handful of riders to have represented Great Britain at championships from Pony through to Senior status.
Riders were effusive in their praise for Captain Mark Phillips’s debut Aston track, which presented a fair challenge and offered rapid-fire technical sections – notably, the segment that passed through the arena and then picked its way around a tightly-packed field of fences that came up thick and fast, requiring sensible, well-planned turns without tricking horses – as well as some good galloping stretches. 93 combinations started in Section A, with 85 going on to finish and 75 of those accruing no jumping penalties across the country. The time proved slightly more gettable for this first section of horses – understandably, as many of the top contenders were enormously experienced — and 16 would romp home before the clock ticked into the red. 11 would finish on their dressage scores.
In Section B, 94 cross-country starters became 81 finishers, with 68 fault-free rounds and just three inside the time. Each of those three — winners Ros and ‘Walter’, fifth-placed Bubby Upton and Cannavaro, and seventh-placed Heidi Coy and Halenza — finished on their dressage score. Overall, that makes a nearly 78% clear rate across the CCI4*-S with a 12.5% penalty rate. Though those penalties were largely scattered evenly around the course, two fences claimed rather more scalps: 10AB, in the heart of the tough section just after the arena, featured a friendly enough log atop a mound with a quick downhill trajectory to a right-handed corner. Eight combinations suffered run-outs here, while one fell foul of the flag rule and two riders fell. The final combination on course was two brushes atop a mound at 21AB, and while those saw just one run-out through the day, it was fence 22 — an angled skinny cannon on a downhill approach and a related distance from 21AB — that shares the crown for being the other most influential question. Nine combinations had problems here, including Tom McEwen and Dreamaway, who had been challenging for a top placing and William Fox-Pitt and Georgisaurous. A further two combinations picked up flag penalties here.
Though there’s one more CCI4*-S to think about this month, at Norfolk’s Houghton Hall, most riders’ minds are on one of two long-format competitions on the horizon: Bicton Arena, which will host Bramham’s classes, and Luhmühlen CCI5* in Germany. Whichever one competitors aim for, though, one thing’s for certain: this week’s competition will have done exactly what Nigel and the Captain intended it to and offered them ample real-world preparation, rather than just another qualifying result on paper. That effort could — and should — be rewarded with a permanent international fixture in the seasons to come.